A Little-Known New Zealand Law Makes Dads Pay for Unplanned Pregnancy

Only three women made the most of it last year, but the Family Proceedings Act can help out solo mums-to-be when the dad has done a runner.

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Nov 1 2016, 10:14pm

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He's the one night stand or on-and-off boyfriend who wants to be young and free, with no responsibilities. Or he's the older guy who is already settled down, with an unsuspecting wife and kids. Whoever he is, he's done a runner and she's left pregnant and alone. It's a harsh reality for young New Zealand women who get pregnant to men who don't want to be dads.

Then there is the cost. Ongoing medical appointments and other medical costs, getting to appointments and back, maternity clothes, and loss of income if you develop serious morning sickness or have other complications (sick leave only goes so far). Then you'll need to prepare for the baby's arrival so throw in the cost of a changing table, cot, stroller, car seat, nappies, baby clothes, baby products, bottles, formula. The list goes on—a kid doesn't come cheap.

And there's the birth itself and the aftermath. You might need to take time off at the very end of your pregnancy if you can no longer work and you'll also need time off after the birth to recover. Paid parental leave during this time is available but it is capped at a weekly amount. Depending on your job it might be well below your normal weekly pay and if you're in a casual job it might not even be possible to get.

It's all a little rough. Kind of like going out to dinner with the guy and being left with the bill. You both were responsible for racking it up, so you should both pay for it—right?

Under a little known New Zealand law, solo mums who are not married to the father of their child can apply to the Family Court to recover the cost of being pregnant, as well as giving birth, plus other costs incurred up to one month after the child is born.

To work out how much absentee dads need to cough up, judges handling these cases follow an established two-step process.

First, they decide what pregnancy related costs are "reasonable". In other words, which costs are inherent as the result of pregnancy.

Medical costs fit the bill, along with all the usual baby gear stuff. You can also go for the cost of maternity clothes, underwear and shoes as well as paying someone to provide home help following the birth which the dad is not around to do. This can even be a friend who has taken time off work and needs to be reimbursed.

Mums are entitled to buy new as opposed to second hand items but if they choose to go high end, it's a different story. In one case a judge wasn't convinced a mum needed to spend $500 on a luxe breast pump when she could have bought a perfectly good one for $50.

The tricky question in these types of cases is where to draw the line. Like the case when one woman unsuccessfully tried to claim the cost of having her lawns mowed. She argued that she could mow them before becoming heavily pregnant, but couldn't after. Other costs considered unreasonable include additional food eaten during pregnancy, vitamins, and the cost of moving to what the mum considered a more sensible house to raise the baby.

Once the judge has worked out the total amount of reasonable costs, he or she then decides how these should be split.

To do this, judges look at how the kid was conceived as well as the parents' behaviour. If no contraception was used, or only used some of the time, the costs are usually split down the middle on the basis that both parents would have been aware of the well-known fact that unprotected sex equals—ta da!—a baby. However, sometimes judges have ordered absentee dads to pay 60 to 70 percent of the costs.

The highest reported amount a mum has tried to claim is $30,000. The judge found that $10,000 of these costs were actually reasonable and the dad was ordered to pay 70 percent, so roughly $7,000. Each case is decided on its facts and there is no maximum limit on the amount that can be claimed, so there's nothing stopping a mum from getting even more.

Ministry of Justice figures show only three claims were made in 2015 which means there's probably plenty more single mums who have been left in the lurch and not aware that this law exists. If you're one of them and think you might want to make claim—start collecting those receipts. And if you're a runaway dad? You might want to consider getting your wallet out sooner rather than later.

Zoë Lawton is a family law researcher at the Victoria University Faculty of Law. Follow her on Facebook.

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